Posted by: chartroose | April 8, 2008

In Praise of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875-1926


“The only journey is the one within”

Alrighty then, you know you’re a total geek when you’re unable to decide whether you’d rather write a post about Heine or Rilke.  I mean, Heine and Rilke are just so exciting, aren’t they?  They’re right up there with winning the lottery on the excite-o-meter.  I guess I must be pretty low-maintenance or maybe just low in general.

I’ve chosen Rilke for now because I know more about him.  In fact, I went through a “Rilke phase” for a couple of months in the early ‘90’s when I would read some of his poems almost every night.  His words seemed to fit into what I was feeling at the time.  Looking at what I’ve been reading and writing about lately, I think he’ll fit just perfectly again.

His mother wanted (and dressed him as) a girl until he was around five years old, and this is why one of his six middle names is Maria.  Why didn’t he choose one of his more masculine middle names, like Josef, to be part of his moniker?  I guess we’ll never know.

Rilke was an early existentialist, although if he were here speaking to me today, I’m pretty sure he’d deny it.  He was often depressed, but he often embraced his depression.  He was often lonely, but he often reveled in his loneliness.  He was a complete, yet very flawed person.  He loved art and sculpture and was Auguste Rodin’s secretary in Paris for awhile.  He fought in WWI for the Austrian army.  Rilke was 51 years old when he died.  He had leukemia, and pricked his finger on a rose thorn which led to sepsis and death.  How apropos for a poet to experience such a poetic demise, especially Rilke!  In his poems, he often imbued inanmimate objects with a kind of innate, living cruelty.

Rilke was one of the lucky few poets to become at least moderately famous during his lifetime, but he was still poor.  It didn’t seem to bother him too much if the next poem is any indication:

The Solitary Person

Among so many people cozy in their homes,
I am like a man who explores far-off oceans.
Days with full stomachs stand on their tables;
I see a distant land full of images.

I sense another world close to me,
Perhaps no more lived in than the moon;
They, however, never let a feeling alone,
And all the words they use are so worn.

The living things I brought back with me
Hardly peep out, compared with all they own.
In their native country they were wild;
Here they hold their breath from shame.

I think the title says it all in this poem.  Rilke is aware of his individuality and separateness.  Other people can’t stand to be alone; they eat together gluttonously and they emote and they babble and they live in their “cozy homes.”  Rilke is above all this.  Even though he is just a poor poet, the “living things” in his mind’s eye must “hold their breath from shame” for they are far superior to the superficiality and acquisitiveness of the common man.  He sees beyond the trivial and reaches for the sublime.

How would Rilke feel about our current consumer-driven culture?  If he were to see how we’re destroying so much that is precious due to greed and corruption, how would he react?  I’m pretty sure he’d snicker and say something akin to “I told you so!”


The inscription is Rilke’s own.  It says:
“Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being No-one’s sleep, under so
many lids.”

Ironic isn’t it?  Did he choose this epitaph before or after he was infected by the thorn?  Maybe he had a strong pre-death premonition.  Whatever the case, the words of the inscription are lovely, and they perfectly describe the multi-layered persona of Rainer Maria Rilke.



  1. Please, do tell! What was the thought that spurred your decision to share Rainer Maria Rilke with the world today?

  2. Well, Care, it’s funny you should ask! My birthday was last Friday, and a friend of mine sent a dozen roses to my workplace. They’re kind of a pinkish-red color and they’re starting to turn black along the edges.

    So I began to think of roses and death (I know that’s really strange) and I remembered that a rose was pivotal in Rilke’s death, and also that it’s National Poetry Month, and here we are!

    Thanks for asking. It’s strange how we associate things and how one thought leads to another, isn’t it?

    And this is even wierder — how did YOU know to ask this question?

    Ooh, I’m creeping myself out now!

  3. Thank you for a lovely eulogy to one of my favorite poets… I studied his poetry at the end of my Master’s degree, but didn’t really know much about him as a person.

    The oft-quoted lines from Letters to a Young Poet have sustained me many times: “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” These lines led me to his Duino Elegies, which I just love.

    Thank you!

  4. And thank you right back, Kristen! I’m going to have to reread “Letters to a Young Poet.” It’s been quite awhile, but I remember being all misty-eyed with wonder during parts of it. Rilke wrote beautifully and it felt like he was speaking to me personally — like he KNEW me.

    And the Elegies, well, they are beyond compare. He saw things I saw; he questioned things I questioned. Is there any hint of us left when we die? What is essence, existence, eternity?

    Now that I think about it, I don’t think there is any poet I appreciate more. He’s the one for me.

  5. I’ve always thought I should spend more time with Rilke – in general I’m terrible at taking the time to read poets. This was lovely though. And the info you give us about his life and death are fascinating. I have his Letters to a Young Poet somewhere in the house, I should get it out and read it again.

  6. I need to reexamine Rilke too, Verbivore! I wish I could find “Letters…” somewhere free online. Maybe there are excerpts or something.

  7. I always get a little sad when roses start to fade and die, and it’s interesting how that lead you to post on this. I’m familiar with the quote at the top of the post, and the name, but have not read any Rilke. Wow, what an epitaph, considering the way he died! Incredible.

    I tagged you for a writing prompt called What I Don’t Remember, if you have time for it.

  8. RE:—> “And this is even wierder — how did YOU know to ask this question?”

    Well, when I got to your site and you began telling about Rilke, I get waiting to see if you would add, “For the meme on cool poets that mean something to me…” or something and then. . . nothing.

    It wasn’t quite a book review and you are so passionate about your topic, I was just so curious what prompted you to write about it!

    And it was fascinating, too. THANK YOU. Happy Belated Birthday.

  9. I love Rilke. To bits. I often make the promise to myself that I will read more of him and then life happens and… well, you know how it goes. But if I had the time I’d read a little of the Duino elegies every day. And I’d reread The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge regularly as well. He was so very talented and ahead of his time.

  10. Hi Lit,

    I’ve never read Brigge, but he’s been suggested to me before. I guess it’s time to check him out!

  11. Love the poem and the bio you gave him but you are right. He knew he was alone and was fine with it. He did not dwell on the little things such as money or fine clothes. He was a poet and writing was his gift.

  12. This is, at least the first entry, by far the most unrelateted interpretation of Rilke I have experienced since I first was enlivened by his work in 1987. I am interested in this interpretation, Yet saddened at the same time. However, poetry has a life of its own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: